How Kids Want to Learn: New Research Emerges (page 2)

How Kids Want to Learn: New Research Emerges

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Geary’s paper did not go without debate. In fact, an entire issue of the Educational Psychologist was devoted to exploring and responding to Geary’s theory in 2008. David Bjorklund, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University, researches cognitive development and evolutionary developmental psychology. “From my perspective, he has not taken an extreme perspective,” Bjorklund says of Geary. “Some of the responses were harsh, and some of the other responses were very positive. Some thought the approach may be a little premature—that we may not know enough about cognitive development to make these conclusions.”

Bjorklund explains that if researchers have trouble with Geary’s approach it’s because of their beliefs about appropriate learning environments for children. For example, he says, some who have an evolutionary orientation would say we should take advantage of children’s natural motivations—that children’s own motivation to learn higher math, for example, or world history, will take over when they are ready to learn. “This is the extreme perspective of ‘let kids be and they’ll learn what they want to learn,’” Bjorklund says. “The other perspective is that kids have nice human brains and we have to shape them from scratch—that we have to take advantage of these so-called evolved processes. It’s more of a rigorous approach to learning.”

Geary’s perspective falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Yet, he argues his theory does have implications for teaching and learning. “If you look at international studies, the U.S. lags behind the other modern industrial economies,” Geary says. “Why? There are a number of reasons, but the trend in some areas is to want kids to discover things for themselves. I like the idea, but I don’t think it’s going to happen without strong teacher guidance. Children need a well-organized integrated explicit instruction because there’s no evolutionary history that has prepared them to learn in these novel domains that are a result of cultural innovation.”

And like Geary’s perspective falls somewhere in the middle, so do the perspectives of many teachers out there. In kindergarten classrooms, for instance, teachers may be using an explicit teacher-directed approach to learning “cultural inventions” such as reading, writing, using Arabic numerals, etc., while still having child-directed learning centers where curiosity and exploration are encouraged.

As Geary says, it’s not always going to be fun, but that doesn’t mean it will never be fun!


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